Unearthing the three roots of political orientation

The RWA scale is the best cross-cultural predictor of left-right voting and party affiliation. The test can calculate the relative positions of political parties along the spectrums of truly diverse populations. So what specific topics does the test cover? Let’s give the RWA scale a new analysis with fresh eyes.

Altemeyer’s test consists of thirty controversial statements. Figure 10 breaks down the content of these statements into six categories. Each bar represents one of these content categories and shows the percentage of the thirty statements that makes reference to it.

Figure 10. Underlying Content of the RWA Test (as percentage of thirty questions)

The six content categories, in turn, can be lumped into three larger groups: the grey cluster, the black cluster, and the white cluster:

  • The three categories within the grey cluster are ethnocentrism, religiosity/group morality, and sexual tolerance. These are the three elements that comprise the “tribalism” cluster of personality traits.
  • The two categories in the black cluster measure tolerance of inequality: the first concerns attitudes toward inequality and authority in society, while the second category pertains to inequality and authority within the family.
  • The white personality cluster has only one category, which measures perceptions of human nature.

This breakdown of political ideology coincides very well with independent research conducted by a multidisciplinary team from Stanford University, UC Berkeley, and the University of Maryland, College Park. These professors carried out a meta-analysis of studies on political orientation in North America, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and New Zealand.

The eighty-eight studies they evaluated covered nearly twenty- three thousand individuals who took various types of political tests between 1958 and 2002. These tests included the F-scale, RWA, several other political-conservatism scales, economic-conservatism scales, self-reported ideological positions, issue opinions, and voting records.

After analyzing all of the data, the team concluded that the “two relatively stable, core dimensions that seem to capture the most meaningful and enduring differences between liberal and conservative ideologies” are: (1) “attitudes toward social change versus tradition” and (2) “attitudes toward inequality.” The analysis showed that, although these two factors are “often related to one another,” they are “obviously distinguishable.”

The meta-study’s first dimension clearly corresponds to the grey cluster (tribalism) in figure 10. The second dimension is the same as the black cluster.

What about the white cluster? The debate over the nature of human nature is the ancient subject of political philosophy, which stretches back for millennia. The problem of human nature has also been studied extensively in its own right by political psychologists and evolutionary biologists, who have made valuable discoveries about this core political topic. Moreover, the white cluster overlaps substantially with both the grey and the black clusters; we’ll explore the relationship between them later on.

These three clusters relate directly to this book’s two arguments:

The Personality Argument: Human political orientation across space and time has an underlying logic defined by three clusters of measurable personality traits. These three clusters consist of varying attitudes toward tribalism, inequality, and different perceptions of human nature.

These three factors correspond, of course, to the grey, black, and white color groups in figure 10. To go into slightly greater detail:

  • Tribalism. Tribalism breaks down into ethnocentrism (vs. the opposite force, xenophilia, which means an attraction to other groups), religiosity (vs. secularism), and different levels of tolerance toward nonreproductive sexuality.
  • Tolerance of Inequality. There are two opposing moral worldviews toward inequality; one is based on the principle of egalitarianism, and the other is based on hierarchy.
  • Perceptions of Human Nature. Some people see human nature as more cooperative, while others see it as more competitive.
Figure 11. The Three Universal Personality Clusters Underlying Political Orientation.

Figure 11 shows these three personality clusters, which underlie variation in human political orientations. The horizontal positioning of the elements in figure 11 does not relate to the left-right spectrum; rather, the important dimension is depth, which shows different levels of analysis, focused on by different disciplines.

The top bar, which stretches all the way across the diagram, represents the variation in a population’s political orientations. These orientations are manifested by different attitudes and behaviors toward controversial issues (for example, members of the Tea Party feel differently about taxation and social spending than supporters of Occupy Wall Street).

Whatever the time or place, specific political attitudes are reflections of one or more of these three underlying personality clusters, which are represented by the rectangles in the diagram (for instance, Tea Partiers have greater tolerance of inequality than Occupiers). The upward-pointing arrows show that the personality clusters are the greatest cause of political orientations, on the top level.

The grey and the black rectangles are at the same level because they suffice to explain most political phenomena, and because this pair of clusters has been intensely studied by the modern social sciences.

The white rectangle is slightly deeper down because the topic has a much more ancient intellectual history within the field of philosophy. In addition, the white cluster’s influence heavily overlaps with both the grey and the black clusters. This overlap means that the clusters are related to one another (for example, people who think human nature is essentially cooperative are more likely to be xenophilic).

The following is the book’s second and most important argument:

The Evolutionary-Origins Argument: Each of the three personality clusters (the grey, black, and white rectangles) has roots that reach even deeper down into evolutionary origins. In other words, political orientations throughout time and space systematically and predictably reflect much deeper biological conflicts.

Below are the three evolutionary roots of the three personality clusters (figure 12 shows how the six components connect to one another). Each of these deeper roots pertains to an area of evolutionary theory. Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of these terms before; the relevant chapters will fully explain each of them:

  • The Biology of Tribalism concerns pushes and pulls between populations, which primarily occur due to tradeoffs between inbreeding and outbreeding. Ethnocentrism and other tribalistic personality facets have evolved to influence mate choice and encourage “optimal outbreeding.” The book will explore these and other tribalistic political phenomena that impact the evolution of populations, including gender inequality, warfare, and genocide.
  • The Biology of Family Conflict (Parent-Offspring Conflict) is the field of evolutionary theory that explains why the interests of the most closely related individuals do not always align, and thus why different family disciplinary strategies exist. The two opposed disciplinary models are based on egalitarian and hierarchical moralities. These conflicts are linked to the variation in people’s tolerance of inequality.
  • The Biology of Altruism and Self-Interest is the area of evolutionary theory that describes how and why people cooperate with and betray one another; this field sheds light on why some people perceive human nature so differently than others.


This roadmap is a bit abstract. But some concrete examples will make much more sense. So let’s dive into the details of our political nature.


Tuschman, A. (2013): Our Political Nature: The Evolutionary Origins of What Divides Us

Unearthing the three roots of political orientation by Manuel Fraga is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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